Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Boat Carries Extra Lock Keepers

Tuesday 31st August: Tixall Wide to Penkridge, 9 miles 5 locks
    Had things gone according to plan today's title may have been something like Pirates Board Boat At Dawn or Intruders Arrived by Kayak , but things didn't go entirely to plan - although they worked out very nicely in the end.
    We were comfortably tied up on Tixall Wide and some of the Cheshire Clan had announced plans for a boarding party. They would leave Car A at X, put car B at Y and be with us by 0930 (hardly dawn, but early enough). I provided a postcode for parking and email details of how to find us. Then the techno son-in-law sent messages from his i-phone: " I might bring the kayak"and "We might try catching crayfish". Being informed by a Bedford friend that crayfishing requires a licence (at least on the Great Ouse) we suggested he should have one too. 
    A phone call about 0900 suggested that arrival time might be nearer 1030. No matter - what more beautiful place, what more glorious morning could there be on which to sit on a boat and muse, and read, and take in the views, and chat with passersby, and do a crossword, and even wield the hoover.  Time crept on and on. Eventually a phone enquiry: "Where are you? Which bridge did you say to cross?  But we've got the kayak, we've passed a lock, a long time ago." Paddling towards Nottingham they were, wrong direction, wrong towpath, wrong canal... I gave instructions, set out to meet them at the Junction (Great Haywood) that they had passed and failed to notice. Up puffed the techno father and the recent bridegroom, carrying kayak between them, the recent bride weighed down with wedding photo album to show the aunt, the Cheshire One hungry, ready to eat her backpacked lunch... Eventual arrival time at moored up Cleddau ? Some three hours after the would-be dawn raid!
    So kettle on, Welsh cakes proffered and we cast off, heading south west along the weavy Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. Lunch perked up the new crew's strength. The Techno One can wind and push, haul and steer but recent Bride and Groom required instruction. In calm and sunny conditions we passed fields and gardens, along here even ornamental pigs in evidence.  A delay, an incident, boats weaving to and fro: a huge and deep old workboat was stuck, unable to shift its heavy stern from the muddy bottom. Engine revving it fought its way back into the main stream. The Cheshire One, forsaking the crabbing bucket for her favoured pink fishing net, rowed and paddled us forward. Leaves and twigs were easy to catch, then unusual fish - apples. Apples aplenty floated beside us, trees ahead well laden with the ripening fruit. A Development Opportunity awaits a buyer of the lock cottage at  Deptmore. "You've got extra lock keepers with you then," said a downcoming boater, assessing our crew lined up lock side.
     The steady roar of traffic reached us, increasing, and then through the tunnel we sailed, under the M6 near Stafford, towards the light at the other side. And at the other side, a surprising view: vans and lorries, cars and caravans bowled steadily along this often congested stretch of motorway. We crawled on, climbing each deep and narrow lock, the recent groom becoming chief gate pusher, recent bride chief windlass wielder, the Cheshire One an expert helper.  We arrived at Penkridge, moored up the boat, then strolled to The Boat to be reunited with recent bride's car. Pub meals all round, a towering Boaten Burger for the lean unhungry Techno One, carpark farewells - and yes, it had all worked out nicely in the end!
Plan for tomorrow: to Autherley Junction, then north onto the Shropshire Union Canal.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Dog Days of Summer

Monday 30th August: Rugeley (Trent and Mersey) to Tixall Wide (Staffs and Worcs): 6 miles, 2 locks (much queuing)
    I never quite understood that line in a poem "the last dog days of summer", but I took it to indicate lolling about, lazy, quiet, warm. An internet trawl would probably put me right but this seems a suitable title for this sort of day.  True, there was early(ish) activity when the Captain (in his role of Catering Officer) raided the shelves at Rugeley's Morrisons. He made two trips - and it's amazing what can be carried in a rucksack and a couple of double strength Sainsbury elephant carriers!
    So later than usual, but still not yet mid-morning we left the suburban gardens of Rugeley and headed west. Very soon there was our first glimpse of the River Trent running parallel but below the canal. The sky was blue, the sun and moon both visible, just a hint of a chill in the air - and it was still. No winds raged about our heads, no trunk roads assaulted the ears and what trains there were made no intrusive roar.  This section of the Trent and Mersey is absolutely glorious, tree covered Cannock Chase rising to the left, small pretty houses, some large houses with private moorings, a good life set-up with alpacas (?) and pigs, fields, signs of gypsy caravan restoration, occasional copses on the right. At Colwich Lock memories flooded back: two years and a bit ago, when moving the boat as fast as possible from Newbury to Macclesfield so as to attend a Lancashire wedding, a helper had appeared just here. She was heading for Lincoln from Reading, tracked our progress, diverted her route and appeared upon that lock side and earned her supper!  Progress was slow at Colwich today, two boats ahead of us. But a pretty lock side house and garden to gaze upon. On then another mile or so, past landscaped parkland, sheep gently grazing, and then a first view of gracious Shugborough Hall. Cyclists, walkers, moored up boats, warnings of queues ahead at Great Haywood Lock. But what did it matter? Shugborough Hall and Staffordshire Way information panels to read, the air balmy, crews helpful, tourists, a tea-shop, its garden occupied by cheerful customers. Have windlass, will use it. One up, one down; another up, one down; then in sailed Cleddau, paintbrush and pot perched on the front locker, the Captain having attended some of her scrapes meanwhile.  Above the lock a longer queue, six boats waiting to go down, many moored up, private and commercial too: a fender maker and an embroidery designer. Great Haywood Junction: straight ahead for the Potteries but left to Wolverhampton. Onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal we cruised, across two short aqueducts and within a mile were at this special place, Tixall Wide.
    On Cleddau's first long cruise (some sixteen or so years ago) we came upon this spot late one afternoon; a boat ahead pulled out, we pulled in - and were amazed. Where else on a canal does the water stretch so far across? Where else do you have such pleasing views over a shallow valley and gentle hills? We vowed that any future cruise along this route must allow for mooring here! You can still see an Elizabethan gatehouse: when the canal was created the landowner insisted that the canal be disguised as a wide lake. Now the sun is warm upon the front deck. Earlier I strolled alongside the line of boats, the bow occupants then were reading books or having tea and jam or doing a crossword or listening to flute music or drinking red wine, all quietly soaking up the sun's rays in a gentle sort of way.
    But "dog days": you cannot help but notice the huge dog population associated with boats and towpaths! Although all shapes, sizes and sorts the preponderance seems to be either very large or very small. Great hounds and very large Alsatians were being walked near Shugborough this morning; a small terrier was snatched and swung airborne via a long lead on the towpath near here. But what intrigues is the number of fatter, largish, usually black dogs you see now "dressed" in Boatman's neckerchief.  We followed the fortunes of one such Bridie today, on/off her boat, but mostly off, preferring "off" it seems to "on".   At the Junction she was slow to rejoin her boat, got confused, tore onto other boats to try and jump, but could not see the direction that hers was to take. Eight or so adults helped persuade her to cross the bridge - and head down the right towpath. She ran, she barked, she ran, she dived, she tried to swim aboard. I didn't see how finally dog and boat were reunited. A final dog reference: a boat  bearing the name Dashund Carrying Company just passed by, two dashunds resting on the roof. Dog days indeed.
    A theory the Captain is developing is that male boaters sport a greater percentage of beards than the rest of the male population.  Whether it can be proved or not is immaterial. But while the Captain here (unbearded) was doing some stereotypical boaty things this afternoon (brass polishing) I came across another boater - male - bearded - and carrying a tiny kitten!
Tomorrow - the plan heads us for Penkridge.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Good sport at Fradley Junction

Sunday, 29th August: Just south of Hopwas to Rugeley, Staffs:  16  miles, 3 locks
    There were musings yesterday on the forms of greeting on and near canals. There have been some more"You alright" remarks from time to time, but also "Hi-ya" and twice, to me, "Hello, me duck". It was pleasing to see, however, as we cruised past Hopwas Primary School a clear notice upon the entrance gate: "Good Morning Children" it read. I will keep my ears (and eyes) open for any other variations on the theme of Hello. As we slowly crawled towards the little footbridge at Fradley Junction there was one very specific greeting. On reading our boat's name another boater announced " Aah, a man from Pembroke." It was said clearly, with a definite Welsh accent.
    The wind had kept up its force throughout the night and as I looked out of a porthole this morning my heart sank at the sight of the grass and vegetation bending in the gusty breeze. Initially the route was relatively sheltered and we wound our way past the breasted up hotel boats about to start their day's stint, onwards, not losing sight of the nearby  television mast for ages!  At Whittington many houses backed onto the canal; from behind his tightly closed French window a man gave a cheery wave from his dining room table.  There was the sound of Sunday football and then some seriously large new houses. Hereabouts you see classier ducks (though still fake) and smarter garden seats. At Huddlesford Junction the Captain called to Brace, boats crashing into each other.  Not quite so, but difficulties experienced in turning in the wind. Hardly a mile was cruised without slowing right down for moored or oncoming boats. Then both; an oncomer slowed, was blown, the stern hugging hedges and branches, bow advancing on a moored up boat. Out came its owner; he advanced down the gunnel. " What is he trying to do?  It only takes a small amount of sense." Expertly he pushed the hire bow away with his foot, then returned towards us. " Only a small amount, " he said again. Would the self-confessed novice, sliding through the gap now, have paid more attention to his geometry lessons had he realised its boating application...?!
    The route curves and twists its way through overhung trees to Fradley; plenty of sharp showers, the garb by now gaiters, overtrousers, peaked cap, longer waterproof - and sunglasses.  Think of a T, we going up the T to where it meets the Trent and Mersey, right for down locks leading east to Sawley (towards Nottingham), left for up locks heading west towards (ultimately) Cheshire. Where the downstroke of the T meets the east/west T&M is a popular gongoozling point, a Braunston of the Midlands. Add some permanent moorings, the attraction of a canalside shop and a pub - and the crowds gather, crowds of boats and crowds of people.  The two boats ahead of us turned right to form a queue for the down lock; we turned / tried to turn left for the first up lock, about a hundred yards along. People lined the path, watching. The wind intervened, we arrived where we hadn't wanted to, a gongozzler's leg was deployed from the wharf to push us off.  How I would have liked to keep that longer leg as my personal useful fending off device! We struggled up towards the lock: mad wavings, semaphore - we were to become the third in the queue.  More guiding ourselves in alongside another boat, more fending off - more showers! Two locks there, helping hands, boats cruising through, hire boats returning to base, boats just coming down for lunch - then intending to turn and go back up! I walked the next mile to the third lock, minus cap, but the sun shone (and the waterproofs rustled) as I raced past old canal mileposts to prepare lock number three for the Captain.  No gongoozlers here, just one helper from an approaching boat. These bottom gates at Wood End lock were wilful, swinging open when the lock was ready to be filled. The helper sighed "The only other one I saw that difficult was ten locks back."   Eager to gain advance information I enquired "Where was that?" A not helpful reply was returned: "Oh don't ask me, I'm from Australia."  
    On we went to Rugely, past Armitage and the narrow tunnel (puzzled still about the torch holding figure) approaching the giveaway Trent Valley view - power station cooling towers.
    Curious thought of the day: some boaters like to forage from the wayside during their voyages.  A first today then to see white-capped mushrooms on the path. Delicious, if they're safe to eat.  And then, on Gardeners' Question Time, (readers, you may have heard it), Bob Flowerdew intoned a canal boat's bilges as the only place a mushroom growing kit will work! We'll give that due thought over the coming weeks! 
Tomorrow, Bank Holiday opening hours allowing, there will be some essential restocking in Rugeley before heading on for Tixall Wide (on the Staffs and Worcs), that great lake in front of a grand house, formed to give an expansive scenic view rather than that of a working canal.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

"You alright then?"

Saturday 28th August:  2 miles south of Atherstone, Warks to 1 mile south of Hopwas, Staffs: 14.8 miles, 13 locks
    Greetings from one back deck to another is common on the canals. The Captain here tends to address a  brisk "Good morning" to oncoming walkers and boaters and usually it is returned with similar reply, even if delivered in a milder manner. But now we are in the country where such words might be too, dare I say it, posh, by far: as we passed through Fazeley, which is west of Tamworth, distinctly in Staffordshire, the greetings to us were all of the "How you doing? Alright?"  and "You alright?" variety, each said with warmth, as if we were personal friends!
    There have been moments today when being alright has not been the case: the tripping over feet and gaining a cut knee being one, the absolute deluge as we arrived at the Glascote pair of locks being another, the fast movement of a boat which dislodged our moored boat, throwing ropes and mooring pins into the water a third. But generally it has been a brisk and breezy sort of day.
    Keen to be ahead of holiday queues at the lock flight the Captain had the engine roaring into life early - again.   He tells me now that both sun and moon were visible then. Breakfasts occur in shifts and when I took the helm the sun was bright, glinting optimistically on the water. At Atherstone Top Lock (of eleven) there occurred a typical example of instant camaraderie. Two Americans had flown in from Oregon, sailors, but had yet to work a lock. In five brief minutes she had covered the canals of New England, mills, a school song about the canal at Lake Eyrie, canals at Disneyland, jetlag, Welsh ancestors - and finished with the observation " My, you have such small feet!" Further down the man in the partly pink boat  (returning from Llangollen now, Middle Level last summer) let fly his views on unnecessarily long boats, claiming he had all that was needed in his thirty five feet, and that he was a Grumpy Old Man.  His wife maintained a total silence, apart from a pleasant "Thank you" as they moved on past us. Later there was the sparkling, brand new boat, not a speck of dirt on any fenders. But it was four years old, a shell on which the husband had developed and lavished electrical and carpentry skills. One weekend outing previously - this was the start of their first three week cruise.
    For boaters the Atherstone Flight is a positive delight: some locks are  within very easy walking distance, others spread apart so there is time for a cruise between. Despite being so close to the town it has a very rural feel, views of hay being turned, of maize, of a buzzard soaring above, of butterflies close by.  After Atherstone the countryside is quiet, disturbed occasionally by the sound of trains. At Polesworth and beyond spoil heaps are now well disguised by trees and undergrowth but there is a sign referring to its mining past. Then unusual peace and tranquiilty prevailed at Alvecote Hire Basin, normally a bustling place to be negotiated past with care.
    Time then to consider towpath usage. Seen in one short stretch: dog walking, blackberrying ("Blackberry and apple pie my love, see there's the apples there," pointing to an apple tree), newspaper reading, texting, running, BBQing and two men trundling a supermarket trolley containing a large cardboard box ...
    We came to Tamsworth, the first house passed the one with the East German border post in its garden. What an array of items to be seen behind the houses, seats and garden sheds you'd expect, add in stone toadstools, cherubs, fake ducks and rabbits, drainpipes, gazebos, trampolines, chickens (real), summerhouses and a coalburning stove being used as a plant stand. There was one more rabbit, floating alas, and very dead.
From Fazeley Junction the cruise became a crawl, following one one-speed only boat past lines of tied-up craft. Relief then to tie up ourselves, in the wind, in the countryside - even if we had to tie up all again (after which the Captain added more pins and ropes!)
    Tomorrow? Off the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, onto the Trent and Mersey and at least to Rugeley...

Friday, 27 August 2010

Coventry, its cathedrals and canal

Friday 27th August: Coventry to Hartshill, near Atherstone: 14.35 miles, 0 locks
    I woke in the night - because it wasn't raining any more! Nor has it since - and it is easier to see and to think when not under a peaked hat and encased in waterproofs!
    We set off for the Cathedral early, crossing the ring road by a high footbridge and heading uphill. Up a cobblestone lane we reached the distinctive front of Sir Basil Spence's 1960's cathedral and the steps to the fire-bombed St Michael's Cathedral. The vast space is open to the skies but overseen by the remaining tall cathedral tower (third highest in England after Salisbury and Norwich). Inside the tower base we found the most helpful ever Tourist Information Centre: not only had they sent us map and leaflet by first class post but also today provided a personalised gallop through Coventry's history and its three not two cathedrals. (No 1 went in the Dissolution; No 2 in 1940.) Oh, and "being sent to Coventry" may have originated in being sent to one of the many monastic orders in Coventry to learn the vows of silence... I'd been once before to the new cathedral, as a young teenager. The space, the colours, the Baptistry Window, the etched glass, the strong imagery had remained with me. There were friendly greetings and helpful directions; until an hour later we were almost the only visitors. The theme and work of reconciliation pervades the art, the gifts from other nations, the prayers and the exhibitions. A wonderful experience.
    Our departure coincided with the arrival of a mass Australian contingent: indeed we got the impression that most visitors come by the coach load!
    A little time then was spent in town, busy by midday, but it was an opportunity to pick up essentials. We returned to the boat, safely guarded by Mr Brindley's statue and made a far more elegant departure from the Basin than we had arrival. We gazed at the Coventry Arm on our journey outbound, this time not through rain-splodged spectacles but through sunglasses. 39 works of art are sited along or nearby the Coventry Greenway: we spotted more this time but still felt a sadness that you have to seek the art under the graffiti. There are metal pieces, sculptures, information boards and  murals: some show signs of weathering but most signs of disrespect. We passed the Nicoh Stadium, catching up with Elizabeth, an old workboat converted to a holiday boat in 1936. But what about the wildlife? Birds there are; ducks there are but no swans (not the right sort of weed?) Fishermen / boys aplenty - the first was building up to a rant about his just scattered bait so I talked of consideration between all users and he softened visibly; two boys were just setting up. " Good luck, hope you catch something ," came from the helm.  "We will," was their tart reply.   But next angler on was pulling out a minute tench - so there is life in the grim and grimy waters.  After an hour and three quarters we were back in familiar territory, at Hawkesbury Junction, the Greyhound pub this time a sea of happy outside drinkers, and we passed the old distinctive Engine House. We headed north, past Bedworth and Nuneaton, past spoil heaps and granite quarries, neat gardens  (see pretend ducks and real ducks) and allotments.  All we craved was a sunlit mooring out of earshot of the railway. Mission (moreorless) achieved!
    Now only two miles from Atherstone Top Lock (flight of eleven),  heading for Pooley Hall or Alvecote for tomorrow night.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sent to Coventry

Thursday 26th August: east of Hillmorton Locks to Coventry: 22 miles, 4 locks
    Mid-afternoon I may have been sent to Coventry: the fact that we were approaching it was the reason.
    " Whose idea was this?" shouted the Captain, several times. I played the Deaf Ears tactic, as it had been mine... Things could have been better all day, so perhaps the rhetorical question was disguising steadily increasing despondency.
    Rain had provided background noise throughout the night. With an eight hour cruise ahead to reach the Coventry Basin we were away well before 8 am. At the Hillmorton Top Lock there was no sign of human life although a pair of black sheep and a rabbit had been spotted. Everywhere was wet; there were deep puddles and turf as squishy as wet sponge. At Bottom Lock (the third) a boat below was undecided whether to moor, to turn or to come up. Having failed to moor (he wanted piling), failed to turn (he fought wild wind and lost) he opted for the Bottom Lock. Meantime, while pirouetting above the lock waiting decisions and actions by others the Captain's much prized joy, the red and blue umbrella, had somehow lost its mooring and taken to the deep! Such set the tone of the day.
    As we left the lock an earlier mystery was solved: the woman with a shepherd's crook returned, swan tucked in a bag beneath her arm.
    We cruise the waterways (perhaps trundle is a better word) under the metaphorical and actual Pembrokeshire flag. At Braunston yesterday a man speculated the flag to be of Swedish connection with a cross between a Yorkshire and a Lancashire rose. I put him right, the colours of sand and sea, Henry Tudor, Pembroke Castle, the Hands off Pembrokeshire campaign  - and on we went. But today has been spent in typical Pembrokeshire weather, at best drizzle on the face, at worst torrents down the neck, with a finale of unpredictable gusts as we were mooring up for the night. Perhaps it was the weather which affected decision-making across all of Warwickshire.There was a serious misjudgement at a bridge (own goal, one picture down). There was the palava at Stretton Stop where a little footbridge allows connection between two businesses and first crew couldn't be landed, then pedestrians would not open it and then oncoming boats comandeered the space. Then there was the difficulty at a bridge-hole. Convention has it that the boat which arrives first takes priority - very reasonable.  A dayboat though, some distance back from the bridge-hole and with ample space to pause and hold proceeded forward, ramming us forcibly, although by then we were in reverse ... Chased by a dayboat! We passed through tunnels at Rugby and at Newbold-on-Avon, and saw a mannequin in a garden further on.
    At Hawkesbury Junction there were the familiar pylons and National Grid signs around the switching centre; in hot June the pub canalside garden was packed with customers; today not a soul. We completed the reverse S shape to negotiate onto the Coventry Arm, a waterway of some 5.5 miles length. Built for the transport of coal it is now promoted as the Greenway, a green corridor of cycleway, footpath, waterway and site of numerous art installations but it largely failed to impress. Some art, yes. Less rubbish than feared and quietly it creeps underneath the M6.  But there is masses of industrial land laid waste or flattened, the little activity there is coming from a few offices, scrap metal recovery or recycling schemes. One landmark, however, is the 'Cash's Hundreds', three storey workers' cottages with ribbon weaving workshops on the top floors (similar to those for the silk workers in Macclefield). At the Canal Basin James Brindley, canal pioneer, was there to greet us. From the galley window you can see him close up at his plans! A few shops and studios are here but there's been an earlier than usual retreat inside: soup in insulated cups saw us through lunchtime, the wet gear is drying out - now we need to warm up!
    We plan to visit Coventry Cathedral tomorrow morning and then move back towards Hawkesbury Junction later on.
1.     Quote from the despondent one: "Early judgment: perhaps the words are better than the place". (Will provide more considered view tomorrow.)
2.     Does anyone else have memories of Cash's nametape sewing marathons...?